20 in 20: A Huge Test of Managerial Fortitude
From afar, and if we, as fans, only looked at results, the Texas Rangers are in great shape. At .585, they are owners of the second-best winning percentage and record in the American League. Their rotation, who has used seven pitchers so far, boasts the best ERA in the American League at 3.39 and third-most innings pitched with an even 313. Their offense has scored the third-most runs in the American League – 250. Their lineup contains the leading candidate for Rookie-of-the-Year, one of the leading candidates for Comeback Player of the Year, perennial All-Stars, a future Hall-of-Famer, and a catching contingent that defies odds and produces consistently.
As it is, we, as fans, don’t just look at results. We’re aware of the fallacies and streakiness of this team, capable of sweeping and being swept within the same week. We’ve already seen some highlight reel moments that will undoubtedly be on the end-of-season montage. But after a month of Thursdays off, the Texas Rangers will undergo their first(!) set of 20 games in 20 days. While it’s obvious that the players will need to condition themselves to run through this gauntlet of consecutive baseball games, the management of their health and morale falls on their skipper, one Jeff Banister.
The reigning American League Manager-of-the-Year, in only his second year as manager, has had his in-game strategy called into question many, many times – from his bullpen management, to his use of struggling, high-paid stars in vital lineup spots, Banister has proven that, while he has all of the skills to connect with and motivate his team to do anything for him, there are still areas where his strategy is called into question. As the team goes into this stretch of 20 games in 20 days, there are key areas in which Banister’s management will be closely scrutinized.
1. The Bullpen
Whether you want to admit it or not, the relief pitching corps that was feared at the start of this start of this season has been a flop.
- Last year’s closer, Shawn Tolleson, struggled mightily in the first month and a half, blowing 4 saves en route to posting a 10.13 ERA. While we learned that his father has been dealing with complications with cancer, many were already under the impression that Tolleson’s stuff wasn’t good enough to have him keep the closer role. Almost a year to the day that he assumed the role last year, Tolleson lost it to Sam Dyson.
- Given to the Rangers for the Golden Arm of Leonys Martin, veteran reliever Tom Wilhelmsen proved that the struggles that have plagued him since the end of 2013 aren’t just a result of a need for change in scenery, giving up an astounding 17 runs in 15.1 innings. He’s in Triple-A now.
- Signed to a two-year deal out of Japan, elder rookie Tony Barnette had his share of struggles to start his Major League career, leaving pitches over the plate and having far less success in high-leverage situations than the organization thought he would. Luckily, he seems to have found himself on the outer edge of the winning pieces of the bullpen.
Now that pieces have been defined as “high-leverage” or “low-leverage” pieces, Banister’s utilization of a bullpen that ranks dead last in the AL in ERA with a 5.21 will be key over the next 20 games. Dyson, Jake Diekman, and Barnette have all been used heavily this season already, after a vow from Banister to use these “winning” pieces less often because of the workload undertaken by their arms last year. Granted, it falls on the offense to get them there, but perhaps Dyson can’t be used in anything but save situations (lead o three runs or fewer). Maybe it’s not using these pieces, in addition to Matt Bush, in blowout situations or even tie games.
Speaking of Matt Bush, his is a unique situation. His management over the next 20 days is going to be vital to his development over the rest of the season. It’s obvious that the team would like for Bush to be an available weapon down the stretch-run and into the post-season. Not using the 30-year-old in certain situations is going to be just as important as when to use him – remember that Bush is facing his first hitters in two and a half years. He has been completely away from competitive pitching since 2012. As fun as it would be to imagine throwing the 98 mph fastball and 76 mph curve in every 8th inning situation in a one-run game, that simply is not feasible if you want him to be a weapon in three months.
2. The Rotation
By that same token, Banister’s use of his rotation, including the multi-inning relievers in spot starts is going to be key. On top of having to manage the pitch count of the returning Yu Darvish, the skipper will have to figure out how to best utilize Cesar Ramos, if any of the other four starters need a start skipped over these next 20 games. Over his last two starts, Cole Hamels has seen his control wane – not to the point of concern, but he hasn’t been as dominant has we know he can be. Remember that Hamels has already missed a start with a groin injury this year, and while he hasn’t had any issues with the injury since then, it’s a history to be kept in mind. Derek Holland has been decent his last few starts, but there’s definitely no promise of that being a long-lasting enterprise. Martin Perez leads the league in inducing ground ball double plays but still has shown that he has some mental blocks. Keeping the rotation healthy and in the right mindset will directly link to the bullpen usage and should be a top thought for Banister.
3. The Lineup
A few important decisions are coming up in the next few days. First and foremost is going to be whether to keep former number one prospect Jurickson Profar in the Majors or put him back in the Minor Leagues when Rougned Odor returns from his suspension. It appears that the decision has already been laid out, as Profar’s chances to get everyday at-bats is more important than his potential impact off of the bench for the Major League team.
Next is what to do when Robinson Chirinos returns from his injury. That, too, will happen on this 20-game stretch and the decision isn’t going to be easy. Chirinos has a history with the team. But “fill-in” catchers Bobby Wilson and Bryan Holaday have been doing a better-than-capable job of donning the gear and swinging the bats since their trips from Detroit brought them back to Texas. Wilson played his first game on Wednesday after resting for three straight due to general fatigue. Could that play into how the roster shapes up when Chirinos comes back? Wilson has earned the number 1 catching job on this team right now, but with Holaday out of options and playing well enough, designating him for assignment isn’t as easy a decision as it seems. With a noted thin catching market in Major League Baseball, someone like Holaday, hitting .254/.304/.451 with a decent enough reputation behind the dish, won’t pass through waivers unclaimed.
Another decision that looms large for Banister is how to deal with the pending return of Shin-Soo Choo. As the $20 million right fielder begins a stint in Extended Spring Training, it doesn’t exactly appear that an everyday outfield spot exists right now. Ian Desmond obviously isn’t going anywhere. Nomar Mazara is making his case for American League Rookie of the Year, and Ryan Rua seems to be doing something impressive every time he’s in the lineup. The most obvious solution would be to platoon with Rua, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that Choo’s health is a bigger obstacle than any production related issues the team might have from him missing so much time. There’s still the issue of a roster spot, though, and, as discussed above, bullpen spots are going to be treasured during this stretch.
Then, there’s the issue of Prince Fielder. Fielder is currently going through the worst stretch of his career. He knows it, we know it, the baseball world knows it. At some point, Banister’s trust in the track record will have to give way to logical maneuvering and Fielder, who prides himself on being an iron man, will have to either sit or find himself in the bottom third of the order. Which one of the two will be a big decision for Banister, and potentially a signature moment of his managerial work this year. After all, Iron Men are only valuable when they’re producing.
4. The Schedule
I would never advocate the intentional losing of a game. But during this upcoming stretch, there are going to have to be games that you choose to rest your regulars or not use your key bullpen pieces. The Rangers will play all but six games against Division Rivals. The games against Oakland and Cincinnati need to be winnable games – a 5-1 record against those teams is ideal, a 4-2 is more realistic (as long as you take both from Cincinnati). Houston isn’t going to be a roll-over series, and do you really want to lose any games to the Cardinals in St. Louis? That leaves Seattle, your closest rival to first place and the one make-up game against Baltimore, which caused the 20-for-20 in the first place.
This is a weird ranking system, but this is how I’d prioritize my effort over the next 20-games.
- St. Louis
I’m not saying to throw the towel in on the make-up game or with Cincinnati. But it should require minimal effort to down the Reds, and if it becomes apparent that the game against the Orioles, which happens towards the end of the stretch, is getting out of hand, that might be a long-relief, bench-player type game. The energy, momentum, and streakiness of the team will have to be taken into account by Jeff Banister, en route to coming out of this string of games with a good record.
What would be an acceptable record over this “20 games in 20 days” stretch? 14-6 seems a little too good to be true. 12-8 seems more likely, and as long as you win the six-game split set against Seattle, you’ll be in good shape in the division come the off day on June 23rd. However, June 24th will start another stretch of games without an off day – this time 17 straight.